Boris Johnson faces minor rebellion in Commons vote on measures to curb spread of Omicron variant
Some Tory MPs fear that tougher Covid rules that come in to force in England on Tuesday are a “gateway to lockdown over Christmas”, as they prepare to mount a small rebellion in the vote on new measures to tackle the Omicron variant.
A handful of Boris Johnson’s backbenchers plan to oppose the reintroduction of mandatory mask wearing to settings such as shops and public transport for the next three weeks, and as many as a few dozen are likely to vote against tightening up isolation rules until March.
Ministers are pressing ahead with the plan in the face of a new variant, which may be more transmissible and may be able to evade the protection afforded by vaccines.
The prime minister has resisted initiating his “winter plan B” of telling people to work from home where possible and rolling out vaccine passports, but he said other “temporary and precautionary” rules would be brought in from 4am to ensure Christmas would “considerably better” than last year.
MPs who form part of the Covid Recovery Group gathered hours before the vote to share their discontent at the changes. They also criticised the head of the UK Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, for saying it was important that people were “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” to contain the spread of the new variant.
One accused her of peddling nonsense and another called it “mumbo jumbo”. A third said the advice was absurd because no socialising was essential.
They also said millions of healthy people would be caught up in the change of isolation rules, which was tantamount to a return to the “pingdemic” of early summer. “It’s a gateway to lockdown over Christmas,” they said.
Another senior Tory complained there was a “woeful lack of clarity” over the definition of a suspected Omicron case. They said they might have backed a more temporary rule change, but given that it would remain in place until March, they would probably vote against it.
Johnson has faced sizeable rebellions over Covid restrictions before, but this latest one is likely to be relatively small because most accept there are a lot of unknowns about Omicron.
One backbencher who has voted against reimposing rules before said: “We mustn’t panic, but reintroducing some precautionary measures is sensible until we know what we are dealing with.”
Labour is expected to back the measures so there is practically no chance the government will be defeated, but ministers will still face pressure over the coming weeks to reassure MPs and a public anxious that they will not have their Christmas plans ruined with just a few days’ notice – as happened last year despite Johnson’s insistence that people would be able to see family and friends.
Scientists continue to investigate Omicron’s transmissibility and the extent to which it may be resistant to vaccines, but they are hopeful that the rollout of vaccinations and booster shots means the UK is in a much better position than it was at this time last year.